Tuesday 23 March 2021

A Fabulous Find at Farmoor 23rd March 2021

After days of cold northwesterly winds, strong enough to cause mild discomfort, the wind swung to the southwest overnight and as day follows night so the reservoir welcomed a smattering of summer migrants. Not too many mind - this is Farmoor after all and we do not want to get ahead of ourselves.

Chiffchaffs have been singing along the Thames Path these past days but only when the sun is shining. Up to four of them. Ornithological metronomes, they seesaw a two note song endlessly, from high in the bare trees. A simple signal of the Spring returning, bringing annual hope and renewal. The feral Greylags are pairing up now, each pair seeking privacy from their fellow geese, scattering to separate territories along the still rain swollen river and raucously guarding their chosen space. A minority of Greylags seem reluctant to foresake the now greatly depleted winter flock and the lone Russian White-front hangs on with just five of its larger cousins. It has been here for over a month, always in the company of the Greylags and surely it will be heading northwards soon. I will be sorry to see it go.

I got to the reservoir later than usual today, just before 9am, as I had planned to give pounding the concrete a miss but a WhatsApp message from Paul changed all that when he reported seeing a Little Gull, a Swallow and some Sand Martins at the reservoir earlier in the morning. Spring migration had commenced in earnest. At least by Farmoor standards! 

By the time I got to the reservoir there was no sign of any hirundines but the delightful Little Gull was out in the middle of the larger basin that is Farmoor 2, light as thistle down, dipping to the water with precision and infinite grace to pick insects from the surface, its flight buoyant and effortless, rendering it unmistakeable when compared to the more laboured flight style of the larger  Black headed Gulls. It was an adult in winter plumage, as evidenced by smoke grey underwings and faint grey smudges on its white head.

I stood with Paul at the furthest end of the causeway and we chatted for a while before going our own ways.I went to show a visiting birder where the white-front was in the fields behind the reservoir and then returning to the reservoir I bade farewell to my new found colleague, planning to sit and scope the reservoir in the hope of finding a Sand Martin or Swallow.

Badger rang before I could even sit down, to tell me that Justin had found three summer plumaged Black necked Grebes by the causeway that divides the two reservoir basins.They were on the larger basin and at the moment quite close to the causeway. 

The grebes had not been on the reservoir earlier and it became obvious they had just arrived, probably persuaded to take a welcome rest as the wind had increased considerably, disturbing the waters of the reservoir into mini waves.

Spring Black necked Grebes are something of a speciality of Farmoor and hardly a year goes by without one or more gracing the reservoir on their way to  breeding areas further north.Where this splendid trio had come from was anyone's guess but quite a few winter on the south coast of England so maybe this is where these originated. Invariably there is the not inconsiderable bonus that the grebes are virtually in full breeding plumage when they appear. Their soot black  heads have a distinctive and curious profile due to the elevated cap of feathers on the crown, and possess a spread fan of gold feathering across each cheek and eyes of demonic red.

Tiny birds, not much bigger than a Little Grebe, they were often almost lost to sight in the roiling waters of the wind scoured reservoir but water, calm or otherwise, is their exclusive habitat and they remained unphased by the tossing and rolling they received from the waves, one minute gliding down from the crest of a wave, the next almost invisible as waterborne they slid further into a wave trough. The diffused sun, not quite breaking the light cloud was turning the grey choppy waters to silver and the grebes became black silhouettes on the shining surface.Photography was going to be difficult!

I joined Justin on the causeway and we chatted. A catch up. Close human contact. Something that has become un-natural in these straitened cautious times. Neither of us having seen each other since well before lockdown, we enjoyed the moment. Other Oxonbirders, scattered themselves at a sensible social distance along the wall of the causeway to enjoy the sight of the colourful threesome, riding out the remainder of the morning on the water. The grebes stuck close to each other, alternating between looking about warily and settling to feed, the three birds adopting a synchronized swimming routine, diving in unison and re-surfacing together. For half an hour I watched them and then it was time to leave to fulfil a prior commitment.

The grebes slowly drifted further out towards the centre of the reservoir, becoming ever more cautious and distant as the yachts from various private schools that use the reservoir, took to the water. I hope the grebes stay for longer than a day. In the past they sometimes have done and at other times not so.

Whatever happens, they have returned to Farmoor for yet another Spring, a welcome re-affirmation of the natural order of things as my life seems to be slowly edging back to something acceptable and bearable.

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